The knife of dawn / A new dark age

Hannah Kendall, Missy Mazzoli, Katie Mitchell, Anna Thorvaldsdottir.
Royal Opera House

Peter Brathwaite as the political detainee Martin Carter in The knife of dawn Credit: Royal Opera House
Sopranos Susan Bickley, Nadine Benjamin and Anna Dennis in The new dark age Credit: Video image, Grant Gee, Royal Opera House

There cannot have been many stranger evenings at Covent Garden than the pairing of Hannah Kendall’s political monologue The Knife of Dawn and the hallucinatory assemblage of works by three other contemporary female composers conflated under one video narrative.

The best that can be said of the former, based upon the hunger strike of a Guyanese poet and activist jailed by the British in 1953, is that it is a useful statement of redress in the colonial story.

Its libretto fails, however, to rise above the banal—"You are the voice of the people, poetry is a path to freedom"—and the piece lacks dramatic tension, a weakness reflected in the narrow scale of the vocal line.

Kendall’s instrumental writing is some compensation for the paucity of ideas elsewhere, evoking raindrops, whispers, heartbeats, and baritone Peter Brathwaite soldiers on commendably through a dreary hour.

The low expectations it engendered were fortunately confounded by an intriguing second half compendium taking its title from Vespers for a dark age by Missy Mazzoli, and also featuring short pieces by Katie Mitchell and Anna Thorvaldsdottir.

The combination of electronics and singers Nadine Benjamin, Anna Dennis and Susan Bickley reminded me at times of Philip Glass, the Swingle Singers or the Orthodox mass, as the individual compositions segued one into another. The composers’ styles were disturbing, haunting, elegiac—quite which was which I cannot say, but the sound was never less than beautiful.

The pieces play under a large screen of Grant Gee's often superimposed video images of a lonely journey through socially-distanced streets and transport, that finally return to their artistic home, Covent Garden, where ghostly doubles of the sopranos appear and fade, as if in a lamentation or elegy either for the virus or human resilience in its eventual passing. The precise meaning was sometimes elusive but the experience strangely moving.

Reviewer: Colin Davison